The miracle of Amy Hempel’s stories is their extreme compassion despite their extreme brevity. Dense and undecorated, they exemplify short literary form, but they also awaken a deep empathy that seems more appropriate to long company with characters through hundreds of pages. This mysterious and elusive effect has earned Hempel recognition as a master of short fiction.
Hempel was born in Chicago in 1951, went to high school in Denver, spent some dozen formative years in San Francisco, then moved to New York. She studied at Columbia with the renowned writers’ mentor Gordon Lish, who was a champion of her work and who edited her first two collections, and whose name appears in print often preceded by the word legendary. Hempel’s books include Reasons to Live (1985), At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997), and The Dog of the Marriage (2005). With Jim Shepard she edited Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs (1995). Her Collected Stories appeared in 2006 and was just released in paperback. She has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, taught at a number of colleges and universities across the country, worked as a veterinary surgical assistant, and provided foster care to seeing-eye dogs in training. She’s currently a faculty member in the graduate writing programs at Bennington and Sarah Lawrence.
This interview began in a diner on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, continued during a dog walk with Wanita, Hempel’s yellow Lab, and finished via email.
THE BELIEVER: Your stories are recognizable as yours— whatever it is, wherever the story came from, it passed through Amy Hempel. What I’m wondering is this: Does writing feel to you like progress toward Hempelianness, or progress away from it? In other words, do you ever feel as if the goal is to sound like—or unlike— Amy Hempel?
AMY HEMPEL: The goal is always to sound unlike myself. In life I am filled with doubt, I am not tough—or I wasn’t when I started writing—and I often use more words than I need, doubling back to make sure I got a point across when it’s not necessary. So what shows up on the page is an idealized version of what I think I sound like, having had time to axe anything hesitant or redundant. And with luck there will be a hint of the sounds of the voices I hear every day, the people I’m in touch with daily, such as Julia Slavin’s incomparable humor, or the poets I read and re-read daily.
BLVR: I know you re-read books and that you claim to have an untidy apartment that was recently put in order during an “apartment intervention.” Everyone’s untidiness is particular, but many writers admit to owning too many books, especially in New York, where the apartments are all so small. Do you own mountains of books? And, secondary to that, do you use libraries? I have a neighbor who goes to the library every week and takes out books and reads them and returns them on time. It seems a remnant from an earlier age, before the advent of online used booksellers. I have a New York Public Library card but I haven’t used it in years.
AH: Yes, there is something quaint about library cards. I have one for the New York Public Library, and if I ever used it, it was many years ago. I don’t remember ever checking out a book. I haven’t used a library in as long as I can remember, not here in New York. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but it always seems like the decent thing is to buy a book, you know? But I’m happy to give them away, too. It’s key to find a couple of good charities that welcome books—then you don’t end up bruising yourself when you turn a corner in your apartment and a tower of books brains you.
BLVR: Is that a kind of compensatory behavior, having an untidy apartment? To offset your stories, which are absolutely empty of clutter?
AH: I don’t know, but the apartment intervention was the kindest thing anyone’s ever done for me. I used to have this straw basket, while I was writing my first book, and I got rid of the basket eventually, but I used it to keep slips of paper that I’d write the first sentences of stories on.
BLVR: I’ve read that you first write the first and last sentences of a story, and then somehow see the shape of the rest of it that needs to be filled in.
AH: Yes… and for a while the slips of paper with the opening lines on them were just around the apartment, like everything, and the other day I opened a Lucite box, and it was filled with the sentences! A box full of sentences! I keep finding things in my apartment. Surprises.
BLVR: You’ve said you experience the world not as a coherent narrative, but as a series of variously disconnected moments, which seems a reasonable evaluation of how being alive feels. On the other hand, forensics (which I’ve read is one of your interests) is a field of inquiry that seems based on tracing cause to effect to effect to effect, in a concatenation that seems altogether different from a series of nonintegrated moments. Could you talk about that?
AH: You’ve landed on one of the big draws of forensic psychology for me—that it relies on logic of a kind that is foreign to me, so it’s like learning another language. More than that, it’s learning to think in a different way. It forces me to make connections it would not otherwise occur to me to make; it’s a challenge, and the stakes are very high in this realm. I like considering experience in both ways—in the associative way I always have, and in this new way that’s exciting and endlessly surprising.
Chris Kennedy, a poet at Syracuse, sent me his new manuscript. I left it sealed in its envelope, so it wouldn’t just get lost in all the paper. So it lay on my desk unopened for about a month.
BLVR: That’s the opposite of what I would do. I fetishistically enjoy throwing things away. I’d recycle the envelope right away.
AH: Then I was walking the dogs one day and found part of a block taped off in yellow. It was right near Petco, where the girls like to drag me. Later I found out someone had jumped from the sixteenth or seventeenth floor and been impaled on a NO PARKING sign. I got home feeling shaken. To distract myself I opened the envelope. The title of the manuscript was Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death.
BLVR: Knowing the first line and the last line seems an efficient way of working, but it seems to contradict the old saw that many fiction writers repeat, that they never know quite where a story is going to go until it goes there by itself—I recall reading about Flannery O’Connor not knowing that the “Good Country People” girl’s artificial leg would be stolen until a sentence or two beforehand. Do you feel any contradiction between your knowing the last line of a story and your not knowing quite where it’s going?
AH: I don’t have a problem with knowing the last line of a story getting in the way of discovery on my way to that last line, because I don’t know how I’ll get there. It’s not as though I’ve figured it all out before I start, that I just color it in and stay inside the lines. It has to do with knowing that a certain last line made me teary when I thought of it, for example, and so I hope/expect it will do the same to a reader. That’s worth working toward, I think. There’s still plenty of room for the story to go wherever it ends up going en route to the closest I have to a sure thing, my last line.
BLVR: Your stories exhibit what Rick Moody called in the introduction to your Collected Stories a “nearly Japanese compaction.” Do you ever think about the ideal length and form of a story? Would the perfect story be one sentence long, or one word long, or maybe no words at all? Do your shortest stories seem more successful because of their brevity?
AH: Some of my shortest stories seem successful because they approach a kind of poem. I don’t think there is an ideal length, though I like the idea of a story in one sentence, and plan to try more of these.
BLVR: I know you read a lot of poetry as well as a lot of fiction. But how do you distinguish between poetry and fiction? Is it even important to do that? And what about prose poetry? I teach a whole class on it every semester and still don’t know what it is.
AH: The best definition I know is that if I write one it’s a short-short, and if you write one it’s a prose poem. I think there is a lot of leeway. I like the idea of the prose poem being image-driven, but that describes a lot of short-short stories too. I don’t really worry about it.
BLVR: Your stories are small machines, but they aren’t simple. There’s been plenty of discourse about difficulty in texts, which I think is supposed to mean a sort of earned incomprehensibility. How can a reader tell the difference between a text that’s necessarily difficult and a text that’s just an encrypted banality? And how can a writer tell the difference?
AH: I think what some people would call difficult isn’t really difficult. And I think what some people would call difficult I’d just call boring.
BLVR: So it’s an instinctual way of knowing. If you’re bored, then the so-called difficulty is unnecessary.
AH: Yes. But it doesn’t really matter what you call it, difficult or whatever else. It’s either good or not.
BLVR: That seems reasonable: either good or not good. Like the equally beside-the-point debate about the difference between poetry and fiction, which reminds me: I read that you designate your new work as prose poetry rather than fiction.
AH: Well, it seems more lyrical, more—what do people say about poetry—image-driven. But there are image-driven stories. And non-image-driven poems.
BLVR: So how are these pieces different from your previous stories?
AH: That piece that ran in O magazine [a short-short/prose poem titled “Sing to It” that appeared in the magazine’s Reading Issue]—it uses repetition in a way I’ve never used it before.
BLVR: They have lyric refrains.
AH: Yes, but more than that, they feel different to me as I write them. They move differently. Something that happens to me very infrequently is this: I dream of the rhythm of a sentence, not the words of it, but just the rhythm of it, and wake up with the beat of it in my head: da-DA-da-DA-da-da-da-DA. And that’s happened much more lately, with these pieces, and so I’m calling them poems.
BLVR: So the name itself isn’t what’s important—what’s important is that the name designates a different category of work from what you’ve done before.
AH: The stories all came out in a book together, and then I thought, Well, why not? Why not just do this completely new thing?
BLVR: I understand and share your deep respect for the sentence as a rich, malleable unit of expression. Yet you read a lot of poetry, at least some of which I assume is in verse. Do you experience versed lines differently from the way you experience sentences?
AH: Yes—lines are different from sentences, and I often don’t know why a line breaks in a poem, why the poet made that decision. I don’t have a feel for lines the way I do for a sentence. I know when I’ve made a good sentence, and I know how to edit sentences for my students sometimes. I don’t have the same experience with the line. It’s frustrating, and I wish I did! I thought I could bring it on by reading a great deal of poetry, but I can’t seem to make it happen.
BLVR: In “Jesus Is Waiting” (from The Dog of the Marriage) a character says, “Maybe people should be trained like dogs. But people aren’t dogs. And a dog won’t speak to you either.” And at the end of “The Uninvited,” a dog’s owner is asked by a vet’s assistant to wave a chain above a dog’s hips to determine whether the dog’s pregnant, but the dog owner misunderstands: “I gave her back the chain. I got down on all fours.” You mentioned that during a visual-association exercise, when someone said face, you pictured a dog’s face .What do you think are the real differences between humans and dogs?
AH: Dogs are like our best selves. The difference? Dogs don’t live long enough.
BLVR: Do your dogs leave you alone while you write, or are being with dogs and writing interpermeable experiences—or the same experience?
AH: James Dickey wrote a poem called “A Dog Sleeping on My Feet” that begins: “Being his resting place, I do not even tense / The muscles of a leg / Or I would seem to be changing…” I love it when this happens, but the moment there’s any motion—the tensing of a muscle—then I’m fair game, and my dogs figure I’m there to entertain them. I have to wear them out before I can work with them in the apartment. But the trade-off is that in the miles a day of “walkies,” I can sound out sentences, and sometimes a problem gets solved because I’m not sitting at my desk.
BLVR: You entertain the dogs and work in the apartment—do you ever entertain yourself? When in New York, what do you do most: go to readings, look at art, go to concerts, or watch films? I should probably include sports events and lectures and things, too.
AH: I’ve been spending a lot of time outside the city the last few years, though I live here at least half the time. The number one activity is walking the dogs, so the number one activity includes being in the park, and trying to pull my dogs’ heads out of the barrels of cookies at Petco, as you have seen. After that: movies. I’m easily overwhelmed by how much of everything there is here, but it is usually possible for me to walk into a theater and find an aisle seat. My friend Kathy Rich and I see every Korean horror film that opens here—that’s a subset of what I’ll see. I’m happy to watch almost anything.
BLVR: Do you regularly read any journalism?
AH: I rely largely on my friends who do to tell me what I should know about. Mainly I read forensic psychology and forensic science textbooks, which, added to the teaching, doesn’t leave a lot of time for regular reading of much else.
BLVR: After working as a journalist but not having attempted fiction, you arrived at Gordon Lish’s class more or less a fully formed fiction writer—your almost unbelievably good story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” (from Reasons to Live), according to legend, was your first attempt at writing fiction. But was there a point of transformation between your being a journalist and your writing that story, a point that marked your becoming a fiction writer?
AH: I did not arrive a “fully formed fiction writer” when I took Gordon’s class! I didn’t know anything about writing fiction, hadn’t done it before. That story was a direct result of what went on in those sessions at Columbia—my material, his issued challenge to dismantle our sense of ourselves. The “transformation” from beginning journalist to fiction writer—there was not a defining moment, but more of an accumulation of evidence. Each new story helping to make the case for it. A writer writes—I started to have proof.
BLVR: Do you ever feel the impulse to write what could be called memoir?
AH: I have written maybe three or four personal essays that included things that really happened to me, and I found them very difficult to do. Sticking to the facts— I refer to a reporter in an early story as being officious, “really into accuracy,” and that enters in. I love to read memoirs—I’ll read a less-than-perfect memoir where I won’t read less-than-wonderful fiction. But in terms of trying to do it, I’m more interested in what happens when I think I’m going to write about something that really happened, and see where I start to veer away, and why, and where I end up.
BLVR: Do your students ever slip into mimicry? Padgett Powell answered this question by asking: What is one doing in a classroom finally but peddling his biases?
AH: I like Padgett’s question. And sure, you see influences, if not outright mimicry. For example, George Saunders has an enormous influence on students I’ve worked with recently. I can see it, so I say it—“You’ve been reading George Saunders,” and I’ve always been right, and it’s a compliment, the students love his writing, I love his writing—and then the job is to find the ways in which the new writer can hold on to the inspiration and look at ways in which s/he can be different from George Saunders. He is a writer who has amplified what a story can do and be, and that’s thrilling.
BLVR: Lazy critics declare some of your stories not to be stories because they don’t resemble the stories they’ve seen in some magazine or other. But I wonder whether you have a positive definition of a story. How do you know a story’s a story?
AH: I have an increasingly open sense of what a story is. Why not make room for more instead of being restrictive? There are so many kinds of stories! Any time you hear someone say, “That’s not a story,” I think you should question the person, not the story.
BLVR: You’ve said that the first sentence of “Tumble Home” indicated to you that it would have to be a novella, but can you explain how you knew? Was it something about the sound of the words?
AH: The first sentence of “Tumble Home” that I wrote was this: The trees are all on crutches, on sawed-off braces of deadwood notched into Y-shaped crooks for support. See what I mean? I saw that, and as I’ve said before, my heart went through the floor—Oh no, this will be long. There is an exchange in Mary Robison’s novel Why Did I Ever where a guy asks his paramour about something she just said, he says, “What’s that mean?” And she says, “Same as the words mean.” I love that, and somehow I think that was the exchange here, for me. What the words mean, what they meant to me, was that here was a landscape both physical and emotional that I’d be spending some real time in.
BLVR: This thing you understood continues to obsess me. I want to find something literally different in that sentence from the rest of your opening sentences. Like the word Y-shaped, which doesn’t appear in any of your other opening sentences. That must be it. I realize the misguidedness of this pursuit, but I can’t help it.
AH: I can’t say—it was just a certainty and I didn’t question it.
BLVR: “Offertory,” the last story in The Dog of the Marriage, is hailed as the first appearance of explicit sex in a Hempel story. But most of the sex isn’t really sex! It’s one character describing (via dialogue) a prior sexual arrangement to another character. And then at the end of the story, as in your famously unreliably narrated story “The Harvest” [from At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom], this character (via first-person narration) reveals that the story she’s told might be inaccurate. This narrator’s description of a Polish porn film is more explicit than her dialogue about the sex she may or may not have had in the past, which is in turn more explicit than the “real” sex she has within the action of the story. Was this a conscious attempt to distract the reader (or… the writer) from the story’s “real” sex?
AH: I love this question! All I had when I started (besides the first and last lines, of course) was that I wanted to show the moment when power shifts between two people. And the way I wanted it to shift would involve manipulation of several kinds, all of them delivered in the form of stories, withholding and then bestowing truths. I had been told that the only sex scenes that worked were those that were about something else. I think I would have felt awkward writing some of the things I wrote here if that had not been the case. And I had a good time writing moments of misalignment—as when the man urges the woman to tell him a salacious story again, and she says, Oh, don’t you have something like that on video? But you asked about distracting a reader from the “real” sex in the story—I tried to look as closely as I could at these acts of love and sex; I was trying not to be distracted, so I don’t think I tried to distract a potential reader, no.
BLVR: Speaking of readers, real ones, does recognition for stories ever change your opinion of them? Does the recognition of “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” make you like the story more or less than you did before it was widely anthologized, or more or less than your other stories? Do you have steady favorites from among your work?
AH: There are stories I can rely on when I will be giving a reading, stories that tend to work read aloud. Was it Picasso who answered that his favorite painting was his next one? I’m probably most pleased with the last story I’ve written, so that means it’s the O magazine piece. Most of what I want to do next is there.